PostHeaderIcon Paradise’s Case of the Blues

The time is 1949. Inside the Paradise nightclub in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood, the five characters in “Paradise Blue” act out their personal dramas unaware that their lives are about to be turned upside down. Outside, Southern blacks have been migrating to Black Bottom at the rate of 1,000 a month for the past 30 years, turning the area from predominantly white to black.

An estimated 350 black-owned businesses exist in the neighborhood. It is a vibrant part of the city that blacks call their own but politicians call “blight”. Like many Northern cities at this time, Detroit’s power brokers are planning an “urban renewal” project to tear down Black Bottom’s dilapidated buildings, displace the current residents and erect an expressway to take the city’s fleeing white residents to the suburbs.

Paradise Blue--Timline Theatre

Al’Jaleel McGhee as “Blue”

Dominique Morisseau  situates the reality of this racial/political dynamic, only six years after Detroit’s race riots, inside Club Paradise.  It opens with the jazz club’s owner, Blue, playing runs on his trumpet. The club was started by his father but is having financial troubles in the face of newer competition. Blue also has personal troubles of his own that he hides with blustery, bullying outbursts at his fellow musicians and faithful lover, Pumpkin.

“Paradise Blue” is one of a cycle of plays that focus on Detroit, playwright Morisseau’s, hometown. The first was “Detroit ’67”, another riot-filled year. This is the second of Morisseau’s plays that Timeline has presented following last season’s “Sunset Baby”. “Paradise” is a more gut-wrenching production than “Sunset” and features two first-rate portrayals by the female leads, Tyla Abercrombie as the sassy, worldly Silver and Kristin Ellis as the innocent, poetry-loving Pumpkin. Ronald Conner delivers the best male performance as Corn, a kindhearted piano man. The titled protagonist, Blue, played by Al’Jaleel McGhee, delivers a disappointing, one-note performance dominated by anger. If that is how Ms. Morriseau wrote the part, Blue deserves to be a more complex personality so we can sympathize with his plight.

Tyla Abercrombie as “Pumpkin”& Al’Jaleel McGhee as “Blue”

Aside from Blue, the play’s characters are well-drawn and the dialogue sounds true. The action is smartly-paced and keeps the audience anticipating what comes next. While Blue is plotting the sale of the club and leaving his loyal drummer and pianist behind, Silver is busy making Pumpkin aware of her own agency. The arc of Pumpkin’s transformation from a mousey figure to a woman who finds her voice to challenge Blue is the drama’s essential core. When the group learns of Blue’s plan to abandon them, he pays the price.

This second of Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy clear parallels the Pittsburgh play cycle of August Wilson. A key difference is that women, rather than men, predominate and drive the action. Timeline is clearly interested in supporting this playwright’s promising development and so should we. “Paradise Blue” makes for a gripping night of theater that ends Timeline’s 20th anniversary season on a high note.

“Paradise Blue” plays at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Avenue, through July 23rd. For tickets and information, visit timelinetheatre.com or call the box office at 773/281-8463, x6.

 

 

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